Beavers and wild Iris bring solace

I first read about Ben Goldsmith in an article about rewilding – but not the official kind. Coda Story, which more often writes about disinformation and the war on science, called it The secret movement bringing Europe’s wildlife back from the brink. The article talks about how some people are secretly rewilding landscapes in the UK and Europe, without any official imprimatur.

But it also had these two paragraphs:

“For Ben Goldsmith, despair over the destruction of our wild places intersects with his own grief over the sudden loss of his teenage daughter, Iris. A lifelong lover of nature, she died, aged 15, in a farm vehicle accident in 2019. He has since given his farm over to rewilding. The spot where Iris died is marked with a stone circle. Not far off, along the stream threading through his land, a family of beavers has appeared.

“The family on my land happened to make their own way there, which is sort of a beautiful irony,” Goldsmith said. “They appeared by magic at a time in my life when I really needed and wanted that. It was one of the happiest events of my life.”

I was so touched by his words. Wanting to know more, I discovered several YouTube videos, and one of them I found particularly touching and a fascinating weaving together of a whole range of thoughts and experiences we normally don’t connect. 

Goldsmith has just written a book, entitled God is an Octopus: Loss, Love and a Calling to Nature, that is about the grief of losing Iris and about the grief of losing nature throughout the UK and the world. And about the ways he has found to grieve through taking action – and how nature’s magic has responded.

Ben Goldsmith

He is rewilding his Sunset farm in Somerset, England, so the cattle and beavers who are nature’s ecosystem engineers can reshape the landscape back to health. And he and his first wife, Iris’ mother, have created the Iris prize to find, celebrate and support young people who are accelerating action to protect and restore nature as a core solution to the climate crisis.

“The natural world, particularly on the farm, is where Goldsmith feels closest to his daughter,” says the Guardian review of his book. “Gorgeous descriptions of her merge with captivating nature writing. Iris remains vividly alive through his words as he recounts her childhood and the time they spent together, as well as the history of the landscape in which she grew up.”

Given his family background – his father was a billionaire, his brother is a UK cabinet minister – and his expertise in green investing, Goldsmith’s analysis of the low costs and high benefits of rewilding nature is particularly persuasive – especially for those who don’t believe climate change is a reality.

Youth Pawa won the inaugural Iris Prize for its work in mangrove restoration in Kenya.

But what strikes me most – apart from the power of his arguments for the value of rewilding and reintroducing keystone species like beavers and for the value of government’s role as a ‘seed corn’ investor in such activities – is the beautiful writing that his story has inspired. Take, for example, the conclusion of the Guardian’s review of his book:

“Goldsmith begins to take action on his own land, and the alchemy of rewilding becomes his obsession and redemption. First comes the “rewiggling” of a human-made drainage ditch, encouraging the curves that make for a healthy, meandering stream. When it fills with rain for the first time, he’s greeted by “an unfamiliar sense of joy that coyly hovered, tentatively awaiting permission to wash over me”. Next comes the ripping out of fences, and a poignant sense of how much Iris would have loved to ride her pony over the newly opened-up landscape.

There are now a number of monuments that celebrate Iris’s life. There is a circle of stones to mark where she died, the Iris prize to recognise young environmentalists and, of course, this book, which will bring comfort and hope to anyone experiencing grief. Most beautiful of all, perhaps, is the almost magical yet very real resurgence of wildlife on the family farm. With love and time, nature regenerates, forgotten creatures return and wild irises can grow.”

That living monument, the Iris Prize, chose its first awardees in 2022. It received 170 applications from more than 42 countries, which were shortlisted to 19 projects assessed by an expert judging panel. As well as grant funding, the prize winners get mentorship and capacity-building.

“Our intensive six-month leadership development and capacity-building programme is led and run by youth-led organisation CoalitionWILD, to equip emerging environmental leaders with the skills necessary to carry out action projects for the planet. Our prize winners access bimonthly interactive webinars led by expert speakers, which focus on project development and management, fundraising, budget creation, grant writing, monitoring and evaluation and effective communications.”

If you want to learn more, check out Ben Goldsmith’s brilliant podcast called Rewilding the World. It is a series of fascinating conversations with people doing rewilding in unusual places and on unusual scales – everything from regreening the Sinai desert to creating Europe’s Yellowstone in the Carpathian Mountains. You will be fascinated, I promise.

Cover image: Wild white iris, Gailhampshire, Cradley, Malvern, England. Wikimedia.